Rail Traffic January 2011 Up 8% YoY

Econintersect uses transport indicators as one of the primary measures of economic activity.  Weekly, we publish the press releases from Railfax on our news blog (the January 2011 releases are here and here and here and here).

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) January 2011 data corresponds to the Railfax data with carload counts up 8% YoY.

U.S. freight railroads originated an average of 285,573 carloads per week in January 2011 (see chart below left), for a total of 1,142,293 carloads for the month. That’s up 8.0% over January 2010 and up 7.3% over January 2009. That sounds like a nice gain — and it is — but to keep it in perspective, other than 2009 and 2010 it’s still the lowest January average since 1994.

Because of the way counts are reported by the AAR and Railfax, few graphs and totals show total rail carloads – although the one above does.  Normally, carloads are reported for commodities – and then for intermodal.  Coal is the gorilla in the commodities, and sea containers are the gorilla in the  intermodal counts.

As 45% of the commodity traffic on US rails is coal (11% in Canada), how much coal is moved – and its trend is important.  Coal also serves as a weak proxy for electricity production as most US coal is used in power plants.

Coal movements not only are trending up, but the rate of growth also continues to trend up.   Although intermodal is trending up, the rate of growth is continuing to be less good.

Econintersect also analyzes container movements – and the December 2010 analysis is here.   Overall, container counts have been falling after a mid-year post recession peak.

Rail counts for sand & gravel, and lumber remain in depression territory.

Overall, rail counts are stable with YoY improvement – but no clear trend line whether the YoY improvement is growing or contracting.  For Econintersect, the next few months should establish this trend – and this will be the true economic indicator for the direction of the economy.